Tents are primarily categorized as three- or four-season. Because most campers camp in the spring, summer and early fall, three-season tents are ample for most purposes. Four-season tents are designed to hold up to the harsher weather and snow of winter. If you intend to do any camping in the winter, you'll want a four-season tent. You may consider purchasing two tents, because winter tents will be much heavier and warmer than you'll need in the spring or summer. For most camping purposes, a three-season tent is the better choice.
Tents are often depicted in terms of how many people they'll hold (i.e. solo, two-person, four-person, etc.). Size guidelines like these are rather arbitrary and vary from tent to tent. The size you need really depends upon the people you're camping with and the amount of gear you intend to store in the tent as much as it does the number of people. The best way to size the tent is to pitch it in the store before buying so you can physically see the size. If this isn't possible, don't pay much attention to the number of people, and instead, compare the tent dimensions. In addition to floor size, consider the height of the tent and angle of the walls so that you'll have ample sitting room. Steep walls provide additional room inside the tent.
Packed Weight and Size
If you're car camping, weight and size are not big factors in your tent purchase. However, if you plan to backpack with the tent or simply have a long distance to carry it to the campsite, you may consider these specifications. There will be several weights listed, but the most important weight to consider is the "packed weight," because this depicts how heavy all the tent materials will be when packed up, which is exactly the weight you'll be carrying assuming you plan to use the full tent. Weights will vary drastically depending upon the size and design of the tent, but some of the lightest two-person ultralight tents weigh between 2 and 3 pounds packed. Of course, the lighter the tent, the heavier the price tag. Packed size is also important to consider when determining how the pack will fit in or on your backpack.
Purchasing a tent with good ventilation will provide a cooler, drier, more comfortable night of sleep, particularly on hot summer nights. Tents with a full or partial mesh body are the best bets for ample ventilation in the summer. A rain fly can be used to provide waterproofing in case of inclement weather, but ventilation is a feature you'll be glad to have. Tents with windows on opposite walls can provide a cooling cross-breeze.
The most convenient, easiest tents are freestanding. These tents include poles that allow them to be pitched anywhere without relying solely on staking out. Tents that aren't freestanding save weight and bulk but require that you stake them out on trees or other available objects and possibly use hiking poles or sticks to pitch the roof. For car camping, a freestanding tent with sturdy, collapsible aluminum, fiberglass or composite poles is the best purchase.
Other Features and Accessories
Look for a tent with factory-sealed or taped seams. If the seams aren't pre-sealed, you'll need to seal them yourself to prevent water from leaking through the seams. A one-piece tub floor will also provide the best waterproofing. A vestibule is a handy add-on to any tent that can keep things like boots, bags and pets dry without requiring that they spend the night in the tent with you. You may also want pockets to hang your gear in. Finally, a footprint is a good piece of gear to purchase, particularly for lightweight and ultralight tents. It will help protect your tent floor from premature wear and damage from rocks, sticks and other ground hazards.